There May Be a New Way to Overcome Your Fears — & It's Just a Heartbeat Away

Phobias are relatively common. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, phobias are the most common mental disorder in the United States, with 19.2 million Americans experiencing one or more phobias. However, a new type of therapy may enable some to overcome their fears.

According to researchers at the University of Sussex, help is just a heartbeat away.

The study, which was published in the journal Ovid, explored a variation of exposure therapy, a known phobia treatment that has been around for some time. However, this new version involves exposing one to the object of their fear when their heart beats.

Dr. Hugo Critchley, chair of psychiatry at Brighton and Sussex Medical School and principal investigator of the study, explained in a statement: "[M]any of us have phobias of one kind or another — it could be spiders, or clowns or even types of food. Treatment usually involves exposing the person to their fear, but this can take a long time. [However,] our work shows that how we respond to our fears can depend on whether we see them at the time our heart beats, or between heartbeats. You could say we’re within a heartbeat of helping people beat their phobias."

Traditional exposure therapy takes a great deal of time. It is a prolonged process that involves increasing exposure to the thing that scares you over a set period of time. However, this new therapy found patients’ anxiety levels were reduced in a shorter period of time. 

Researchers sorted patients with arachnophobia (a fear of spiders) into three groups. The first group was exposed to images of spiders in time with their heartbeats. The second group was presented with the same pictures in between heartbeats, and a third control group saw spiders randomly in their therapy sessions. And while there was some improvement among all patients, the study revealed that the people exposed to spiders in time with their own heartbeats showed greater reductions in self-reported fear of spiders, anxiety levels and their physical responses to spiders.

That said, while this study shows great potential, additional research is necessary. But in a world that gets more terrifying by the day, it’s nice to know there are ways to make things less scary.

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